What a day! Part of the time I felt like quite the lady of the manor, with various people running around helping me out, and part of the time I was the sweaty Cook Housekeeper. All in all a wonderful day, ending up with two happy if exhausted girls in the dormitory of Camp Kristen.
The mayhem began with a phone call at 8 a.m. (never my finest hour) announcing that the propane man would be here at any moment to fill the tank. Never mind that the propane company agreed that I needed a new tank, and agreed to move it to the side of the house where John wants it… sure enough, along came the guy with a very long hose and within 90 seconds had filled the tank. This was the service that took five days to book, and countless phone calls between me and the company trying to ascertain…
We’ve been a sort of clearing-house for visitors these days, thank goodness: after three straight weeks with just me 24/7, Avery was about to start climbing the walls (in her own completely elegant way of course). Our fun with Farmer Rollie and his family, Anne, David and Katie, and Jill, Jane and Joel were welcome little stars in our sky of togetherness. But it was time for houseguests.
Avery had started a running commentary of the news broadcasts: last night some dopey talking-head was describing something Obama had said, and descended into one of the typical mixed bag of metaphors, similes and poetical imagery. “He’s treading on thin ground here.” Avery groaned, “All right, that’s IT! He has to choose between treading on thin ice, and covering difficult ground, but there is no such thing as THIN GROUND!” And as we watched my favorite episode of “The Vicar of Dibley,” starring my crush, Richard Armitage, she laughed perfunctorily at a joke and looked at me out of the corner of her eye and said, “You realize I’m only humoring you.”
So it was with great happiness that we received Jane for her sleepover holiday of the summer, this weekend. She came with her bag perfectly packed to include everything she could possibly need and her father ready for a night of concert-going all on his own. My unbelievably energetic sister was on a business trip to Indianapolis, so Jane was ours for the weekend. There was trampolining, a dinner adventure to Maggie McFly’s (there’s nothing like a light-up ice cube to MAKE your pink lemonade really shine), fun with kittens, a thunderstorm in the wee hours, some fun with a whole collection of brightly colored clay lumps, a trip to the incomparable Laurel Diner for brunch on Sunday, sweaty visit to the playground and some rugged hide and seek. Through it all was Jane’s own personal soundtrack, featuring her bellowed version of “Life is a highway, and I wanna ride it, all night long…” When I reported this to her doting father Joel, he merely sighed and said, “She doesn’t even LIKE highways!”
Of course everywhere we went everyone adored Jane. This would be repetitive except that everyone must get in line behind Avery and me, who find Jane to be practically perfect in every way. She’s incredibly articulate, humorous, energetic and warm. I told Joel, “Everyone found her so charming…” and Jane, listening in from her position on the trampoline, chimed in deadpan, “Well, I’m a charming little girl.”
All too soon it was time to take her home. Whatever Jill and Joel are doing to produce such an agreeable, entertaining and SWEET child, they should keep doing it. She wears Avery out, though! It’s so hard for me to look back at the three and a half year old Avery, whatever she might have been like. I just don’t remember it aside from little vignettes (at the park, she came to me with a bubblegum wrapper and said, “Mommy, please take my detritus”), but looking at the slightly pre-teenish girl calmly negotiating our limited CD selection in the car, it seemed there had never been a goofy, heedless, reckless, silly, sweaty little near-baby in her place. But I know there must have been. Avery, this summer, seems to be in a bubble of extreme calm. “I love this age,” I said the other day, and she rejoined, “You always say that, Mommy,” and I said, “Yes, but it’s really true this year.” She is wonderful company, morning, noon and night.
We came home to a blackening sky and wailing tree branches, and a visit from Anne, David and Katie to our cheerful kitchen to pay homage to the kittens. Thank goodness I had succumbed to my housewifely instincts the other day and thoroughly scrubbed the kitchen floor, as we all ended up sitting on it, on the kittens’ level, making absolute fools of ourselves with those voices that even intelligent people can make when faced with the fuzzy little creatures. These voices use a lot of “o” sounds, as in “oooooo, they are sooooo cute!” And they are. Wiggly, fearless, hopping about and bouncing from lap to chair to rug, chasing their favorite toy: a roll of red Christmas ribbon! Avery marvelled at all the things they can, do, when their human compatriot Katie, the very same age, can do… just mewling and asking for food! I explained this, pointing to the cats and saying, “All these things they can do? That’s all they’ll EVER be able to do.” “Good point, Mommy.”
And life with no stove or oven? Getting old. I realize that for most people a microwave is used for more than, say, microwave popcorn and… melting butter. For microwave popcorn. So last night I reverted to childhood and steamed up a serving of good old rice pilaf, used to love it as a child, not bad now. But corn in the microwave? Don’t love it. Mushrooms in butter? Can’t cook them evenly. But a thinly-pounded chicken tenderloin, marinated in garlic, ginger, sesame oil and soy sauce, takes about 5 minutes to grill, and that was lovely. Today I acquired a hot plate, in desperation. At least then I can make pasta sauce, keep it warm in the microwave, and boil water for pasta. Anne keeps inviting us to use her stove and oven, but I feel that the last thing a woman with a newborn baby needs is a whole household camping out keeping an eye on a roast chicken. We’ll see. The gas people informed me loftily today that they don’t particularly care when my stove people are coming (tomorrow), that they cannot get me a new gas tank until… Friday. There must be more people who can supply gas to me?
Today was the day Avery has looked forward to for MONTHS: the day she got to introduce the joys of Red Gate Farm to her beloved Anna and Ellie. Who knew (well, actually we did, but we were sad anyway) on that last, horribly sad day of school, that in just a few weeks we’d be reunited in the super-American, sunny, blue-skied sidewalks of Katonah, New York, the perfect halfway point between Greenwich and Southbury. It was fun to catch up with Becky, listening to her perfectly exaggerated Southern accent as she describes her North Carolina adventures. Then it was onto home for us, and the girls’ absolute on-their-knees devotion to the kittens. What else could you expect? One kitten per girl, nothing so 20th century as shoelaces to be sure with these girls and their Crocs, their platform wedgies… but other toys presented themselves: Avery’s summer obsession of lanyards has produced endless numbers of keychains, bracelets, zipper pulls… they all made perfect teasers for the little ones. “I just KNOW that my mom will give in when she sees these little guys!” Anna said hopefully. “My dad’s not THAT allergic.”
Finally they tore themselves away and we headed to the pool, for a late afternoon dip. I actually fell asleep on my towel in the sun, in total relaxation with those girls occupied in the pool: no little voice clamoring, “Come in, Mommy, it’s really warm when you get used to it!” I felt very grownup as I swam with them for just ten minutes and then acted like a real mother, getting out and reading my book as they played. This is what I dream of all year in London when times get complicated. Just a calm summer afternoon, everyone healthy and happy, sun blinking in and out of the fir trees, a nice icy bottle of water in the pool bag, a mindless novel to hold up against the sky, American voices shouting, a radio playing tacky 1980s pop hits, most of them involving “Journey.” Perfect.
And what luxury to come home, take a leisurely shower while the girls practiced their trampoline routines, then to another dinner (enough!) at Maggie McFlys, and more light-up ice cubes, naturally. The girls are like a comedy act together, with a friendship’s worth of shared stories, corny jokes and what seems to me an amazing sophistication for children so young. Among them these three have racked up an outstanding travel: can you imagine they’ve been to Rome, Florence, Paris, Dubai, South Africa, Morocco, Ireland, Scotland, and countless cities in their own United States? It boggles the mind to think of the restaurants these girls have eaten in, the flights and hotels and tours and museums and plays… and yet what really makes them happy is three stray kittens and a light-up ice cube. There’s a lesson there for sure.
We stopped at Anne’s to deliver some emergency cat food to her two, and now the girls are playing “Horseopoly,” at least when they can tear themselves away from the kittens. I’m very happy with my little household. But tomorrow night: I’m cooking in, no matter how sick we are of grilling! Any new suggestions gratefully accepted…
So yesterday at this time I had one 11-year-old girl under my roof: tonight I have the same, plus a 3-and-a-half-year-old girl, and THREE KITTENS! I am not making this up. I’ll give you a brief version as befits the mother of all these people who must get a decent night’s sleep in order to take care of them all at 7 a.m. tomorrow…
Avery and meandered over to Middlebury (well, it shouldn’t have been a meander, but a dead straight shot, only I am rubbish at directions as anyone will tell you) to visit a tack shop and buy a helmet for her, and as we approached the shop, we passed a sign that said, “Tag Sale: Free Kittens.” Well, it was but the work of a moment to stop by on our way back out of Middlebury, and to explain in all sincerity that we couldn’t really adopt the kittens, as we live in London, but… they and their five siblings had been found in a storm drain and abandoned by their mother and… I felt the people who rescued them had done all anyone could expect anyone to do, and now there they were, living in a house whose landlord had forbidden cats.
So Avery tried to play the voice of reason, but it was no use; we took the kittens and are now faced with finding homes for them, but how hard can it be? They are completely DARLING. Avery has named them Captain James Hastings, Amanda, and Lucy Elizabeth. For short, Hastings, Mandy and Lizzie. They are cozily ensconced in my laundry room, just on the night of Jane’s sleepover adventure.
And there you have it: How To Complicate Your Life in Two Easy Steps: borrow your perfect niece, and acquire three new animals… all in one afternoon. Try it: anyone can do it!
Well, it took awhile: your odd power outage, fence destruction, underfoot deceased rodent… but today is what I think of when I imagine Red Gate Farm: bright blue, unmarked skies (unless you count a couple of airplane trails), green, green grass and trees, red barns, sparkling bird bath (I cannot say it is clean, because there’s a whole layer of algae or moss or something, living under the surface, but the water is clean), birdsong to go with it. And a perfect visit to the horses up the road, as you see: what sort of people rescue abandoned horses and give them homes? Our dear neighbors Mike, Connie and Taylor, it turns out. We can’t wait till they’re living out in our back meadow (the horses, I mean), just an electrical fence or two from now.
I still have some lurking homeowner issues (of course no one has been back to see my long-suffering fence since last week, but I’m not feeling very confrontational today so I have declined to harrass or chivvy my “Accident Survey Report Consultant Manager” or whatever her title is). Namely, this morning as I walked past my stove I had to admit what I’ve suspected for several days: a gas leak. It was but the work of a moment to call the number on my gas tank only to be told that it’s no longer in use. The very same with the number I got from 411. Hmmm. A little assiduous googling, however, and the guy is on his way. I refuse to be distracted from my extremely good humor, however, and plan to see his prompt response as a good thing, not the first salvo in a long gas-related episode.
Continuing on the propane theme, I have run out of the precious gas for my grill, so in true feminist style I managed to follow my brother in law’s precise instructions (I love having someone to turn to who is not only as precise as I am, but understands ignorance and does not make fun of it!), and removed the tank from the grill, pocketed all the bits and pieces that attached it, and bob’s your uncle. Well, I haven’t actually replaced it yet, which will require a trip to the hardware store and asking for something I don’t really know how to identify, and hoping I get what I need, not to mention am able to re-attach it and cook dinner without exploding us all to kingdom come.
Luckily (or not) “us all” is only Avery and me. We have decided that we can’t invite Anne, David and Katie to dinner EVERY night. But it’s been a couple, so perhaps we can lure them for homemade pizza tonight, and grilled vegetables? I long to take a hundred pictures of Katie, just to remember how tiny she is this summer, and to put her with Avery, if only to highlight the contrast between newborn and nearly-teen. Avery has crossed some invisible line this summer from little-girldom to budding independent person. She is really enjoying being sent to the Starbucks order desk by herself, or sent to get red peppers when I’m already in line at the grocery. We are toying with the notion of having her go to Blockbuster Video while I go to the Gap a few doors down. I’ve ascertained at the library that she cannot be dropped off there until age 12 (next summer, then), but she is happy to go upstairs to the children’s section on her own, check out her own books and pack them up, while I hang around the ground floor doing my upright ab crunches (don’t ask, I’ve become completely obsessed with how many I can do in a day while still not seeming to exercise).
Avery is also interested this summer in… shopping. On a rainy day this week we found ourselves at some nameless mall in Waterbury, Connecticut, shopping at a fairly hideous but harmless store called Limited Too. I remember a store called The Limited from my own teen days, and I also remember caring about clothes and shopping, although it seems to be from a very long, long distance of about 30 years and about 20 pounds. Could anyone have been as thin as I was as a teenager? How on earth did I find any clothes to fit? But now it’s fun to see Avery try things on. “Are these sparkles an affront, or are they kind of cute?” “Well, if it was ONLY sparkles, or lace, or sequins, I can see the point. But all three?” Luckily we agree on most things. The arrangement is that we don’t either of us buy anything that the other absolutely HATES.
How relaxing is a day when the tasks involve nothing more strenuous than washing all the kitchen rugs and hanging them in the sun to dry, walking in a leisurely way across the sun-dappled road to see what the mailman has brought (every summer John is aghast at the number of valueless used books that Avery and I manage to order, for a dollar apiece, from booksellers all over the country, all to end up in our rusty old white mailbox that still bears the name of our former homeowner).
I spoke too soon. No, it is even more pathetic than that. I TYPED too soon. It was not only a gas leak, but a gas leak in… my stove. The nice gas guys came out to look at the tank, and after a bit of masculine working about and explaining to me nicely about pipes and connections and whatnot, and spraying some mysterious liquid onto rubber bits and looking for bubbles which would mean something very, VERY awful, they implied that we will all die of asphyxiation on a Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.… The long and short of it is, I am now waiting for a stove repairman to come… Tuesday. As John’s mom says, I’m the only person who would see this not as an opportunity to leave the dishwasher empty for four days, but as a horrible prison sentence in which I’ll have to eat… OUT.
Anyway. I refused to let it spoil the gorgeousness of the day. I refused to be distracted or made surly by the fact that the guys from the gas company had dropped my sandwich bag full of sugar onto the kitchen floor, or that when they pulled the old, OLD Indiana pine bench out from the terrace wall to look at the gas connection they pulled the arm off the bench, or that I was looking at one sleepover with a three and a half year old tomorrow, and another on Monday with two girls, and possibly two further sets of lunch guests… with no stove.
Accordingly, we decided to rise above it ALL. I thought about dinner. No stove, no oven. No boiled water for corn, mashed potatoes, no steamed rice, no baked chicken or meatloaf, no pasta, no risotto, no soup, no casseroles… hmm. Finally I remembered about Joel’s instructions on the grill propane tank. And would you believe I was capable of detaching it, storing it in the car, and transporting it all the way to the hardware store where I exchanged it for a full tank. Brilliant! Something I never dreamed of in little sleepy Southbury: I had to drive it around to the back of the shop to have it filled up: apparently, having an empty tank of propane that one simply walks into the shop is tantamount to a bomb threat. Who knew.
Anyway, off Avery and I went to the pool for an hour or so of simple, brainless happiness under blue skies and surrounded by shouts of the eternal, inevitable “Marco… Polo,” missing our friend Barbara, the all-knowing, all-seeing former schoolteacher who always knows where to get the freshest salmon or the nicest dried flowers or newest bookstore or a new riding helmet (that didn’t work out so well, as Avery’s helmet’s been on order for two weeks and counting…) who has headed to Alaska on a cruise. The pool was so much quieter without her! I spent some time swimming UP UP UP to the surface to see that ONE perfect green tree I love against the blue blue sky. Somehow it always makes me think of Maine: the serenity, contrast of colors, fresh crispness…
Well, it turns out, on our return home, that one can produce a perfectly DELICIOUS dinner without a stove or oven. I promise you, and here it is. Of course, I don’t know if it will taste even half as good without your having Avery’s trampolining songs in the background… but you can try.
Spatch-cocked Grilled Chicken
1 large organic chicken
2 tbsps softened butter
1 tbsp Fox Point Seasoning from Penzeys (again!)
4 tbsps goat cheese
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp sea salt
Put the chicken on a cutting board upside down (breast-side down). With a VERY sharp knife, split the chicken down the middle. Choose one side or other of the backbone and simply CUT it down the middle. Once it is cut through, flatten the chicken out and cut out the backbone if you like (not necessary).
Place the chicken breast side up on a platter. Loosen the skin over the breast and squish half the goat cheese under the skin of each breast. Mix the butter and herby mix. Then spread the herby butter over the top of the chicken.
Heat the grill to about 400 degrees and place the chicken, flattened out, breast side down. Close grill and cook for 20 minutes. Turn the chicken and cook another 20 minutes. Turn over again and cook skin-side down while you finish up side dishes.
Jack Curran’s Grilled Potatoes
1 large Yukon Gold potato per person, plus 1, peeled and sliced thin
1 white onion, sliced thin
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 stick butter
sea salt and pepper
Place 2 long pieces of aluminum foil in a sort of t-shape, and pile potatoes, onions, and garlic onto the center. Dot with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Fold up foil package so it’s airtight. Cook at same time and temperature as chicken: in other words 40 minutes, at 400 degrees, turning twice.
2 peppers of any color
1 bunch asparagus
handful mushrooms, sliced THICK
2 tbsps olive oil
sea salt and pepper
Cut vegetables into nice serving pieces and arrange on a plate. Pour over olive oil and sprinkle with seasonings. Let marinate while everything else cooks, then grill for about 15 minutes.
Microwaved Sweetcorn (seriously!)
(1 ear per person, at least)
Shuck corn and place on a plate that allows itself to rotate in the microwave. Allow 3 minutes per ear, high power.
Well, this is a delicious dinner and NO one at your table will ask why the stove and oven are chilly and dark. I’m not sure how this grill-only method will serve me for three a meals a day times four day times one toddler times one 7-year-old times two 11-year-olds… but I’ll let you know! In the meantime, it’s that blue sky we’re concentrating on, isn’t it?
So! I know to many of you (namely all my neighbors), a deer is not a notable occurrence in your backyard. But we are still excited! Especially on a thanklessly rainy, yet not even emergency-quality rainy day. We woke up and felt pointless, even to the point of doing an unnecessary load of laundry (you know what I’m saying: “at least I have LAUNDRY going!”), when we spotted this lovely lady in our yard. “DEER DEER DEER” was all I could say, so Avery came running and we followed her out, across the road to Anne’s garden. Needless to say, when Avery saw this photograph she said firmly, “Do not even THINK of cropping out any of that gorgeous foliage!” Thus spake the city child, to whom any leaves are good. Fair enough. It was magical to see her. I mentioned her to the UPS guy and he nodded sagely. “Have you seen her babies? Full of them white spots they keep for a while.”
So it was one of those days. We’re actually savoring today and tomorrow being somewhat… bored, because life is about to heat up, and I don’t mean temperature. The rain today kept us from our pool life, and I managed a good portion of “General Hospital,” plus we were desperate enough to go to a mall in Waterbury and buy jeans and tank tops for Avery’s school year, plus new white t-shirts for me (the staple of my wardrobe, rain or shine, cold or hot). I was happy to call it a day at 6 p.m. or so and start cooking.
I have alighted upon the perfect salmon. I would like to say I grilled it on our grill, but I ran out of propane and forgot to get another canister, so frankly I heated up a skillet really really hot and did it there. A mixture of Penzeys Fox Point Seasoning (I promise you I’m buying a dozen bottles the next time I’m at the shop, I hope on Sunday), olive oil, lemon juice and garlic salt. Smear it over the flesh side of the salmon fillets and let sit for a half hour or so. Then get your skillet really REALLY hot and cook it on first the skin side for about 8 minutes then turn it to the flesh side just for a bit, to cook the surface. GORGEOUS.
And I have narrowed down the perfect bean salad, from my last three or so attempts. All four beans: little white, little red, kidney and edamame (soy). Then sugar snap peas, sliced little, red onion diced, red pepper sliced thin, and LOTS of corn, NOT cooked first. Seriously, raw. A nice lemony horseradishy dressing, DONE. You’ll love it.
And say you planned to make mashed potatoes to go with your salmon but you both felt too full as you cooked? Set them aside for the next day and make:
Perfect Breakfast Home Fries
4 Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and boiled
1 tbsp butter
dash each: paprika, garlic salt, dried parsley, oregano, whatever you like!
Cut the cold potatoes into wedges. Heat the butter till smoking and throw in the potatoes. Sprinkle with all the herbs and toss till crispy and browned. Perfect with a fried egg, or Avery would tell you, with a blueberry pancake.
Yesterday we cleaned ourselves up and went to lunch at our neighbors’ house: Farmer Rollie and his wife Judy and their sons Rollie, Jr., Chris and Todd, plus their helper farmer Eric, although Todd was missing, haying in the field beyond. First off, the purpose of our visit: to help Judy plan the “English tea” wedding shower she’s giving for Rollie, Jr.‘s fiance Trish in August. Avery was brought on board as the official consultant: what sort of sandwiches, what sorts of bread, what cakes, what tea, what dishes. We solemnly reported what we knew, but I must report that the finished plans have a decidedly Judyish feel: iced tea! Fruit punch and NO Pimms! With a champagne punch she felt we needed a fruit one without alcohol, fair enough. A Victoria sponge was floated, but met with less enthusiasm than the Eton Mess I have promised to bring. Please, Lord, let there be ready-made meringues in Southbury, Connecticut. I could never make them, I’m sure. Plus having American rather than English strawberries will lessen the quality, but what can we do?
After our consultations, Judy produced a chicken salad with dried cranberries (sorry, anti-fruit and meat John, it was lovely), and a quiche topped with slivered almonds and chopped chives. So light and delicious, with a puff-pastry crust. But I must say: the piece de resistance was… Rollie’s home-smoked, home-caught smoked bluefish. The day he came to fix (bless his adorable heart) my driveway, and stopped to have a bite of breakfast, he told me the story of his Fourth of July fishing expedition. “The fellows wanted me to spend the night at the cabin, but I like to sleep in my own bed. I told ‘em, no, I’ll be along earlier than you’ll be ready, and sure enough, I was up at 5, read the paper, drank my coffee, and went along to the cabin before they were even up!” They all went out together in a couple of little boats (I wish I could remember where, but because I didn’t know the name it didn’t stick with me) and what with all the rain, the fish were jumpin’. “We went out along that reef, you know the one [never mind that of course I didn’t], and boy, were those fish alive. We went deep a couple times and then they were bigger. But half the time we fished with just the flies, no worms or anything. You never saw anything like it. A bucket full of bluefish, all we’re allowed, before you knew it.”
“BLUEFISH?” I nearly screamed. “I travelled all the way up from Tribeca to 72nd Street at least twice a year, just to go to Zabar’s and get smoked bluefish, and half the time they’d be OUT,” and Rollie just looked at me with smug satisfaction. “We had more than we could smoke,” he gloated. “Stop, stop,” I said finally.
But at Judy’s lunch table, alongside the chicken salad and quiche, was a lovely plate of smoked bluefish! Rollie smiled roguishly. “Thought you’d enjoy that. Did you hear,” he said to Judy, “she likes smoked bluefish.” I am hoping SINCERELY that the next time he goes fishing he either invites me or gives me some. “Now, I know you’re no morning gal,” he teased me, so I jumped in. “But I’d get up at sunrise OR BEFORE to catch some bluefish if you’d let me smoke it with you.”
He truly thinks I’d like to convert an old refrigerator into a smoker. This presumes that I have an old refrigerator at my disposal (a common occurrence at Rollie’s premises), which as it happens I don’t, but if I did, I’d be more than happy to convert it to a fish-smoker. Luscious, simply luscious, even with Ritz crackers, when what it cries out for is a crusty baguette and some d’Affinois cheese to go with it, if you want to go all big-city and frou-frou. I LOVE smoked bluefish.
Is there anything nicer than a nap? I feel decadent if I nap on my own bed, but the guest bed, with its quilted barn-red bedspread and fluffy feather pillows, is definitely a possibility. It was very cozy to hear Avery bouncing on the trampoline as I drifted off… waking up in time for our tennis lesson! I am loving our tennis lessons and only wish we had them more often. But we can’t afford any more indulgence of our lack of skill than once a week! Val watched ball after ball sail over the chain-link fence. “One, two, three strikes we start push-ups!” The luxury of the greenery, men golfing nearby, the ambience of the elderly-people’s hotel tennis court setting, the blue sky slowly settling into cloudy suggestion of a rainstorm… so evocative of American summer.
So we’ve been living not Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation,” but rather lives of… just plain quiet! Lovely to wake up when we wish and have blueberry pancakes and raspberries for breakfast (actually, I make this but I myself have become devoted to V8 and yogurt, and mostly look at the berries to see if it’s time to give them to the groundhog). We visit the library almost every day, and spend lots of time looking up from our reading to see if any livestock is around. Did I tell you about the day I heard honking and looked up to see a wild turkey pursued by a red fox? Crazy.
It’s indescribably cozy to know that Anne and Baby Katie are across the road, and we spend a lot of time walking across with dishes of a new bean salad to share, or a chicken dish I know is good, and hearing about Katie’s activities. So much nice than so many summers when only Fridays brought the lights across the road. Dave has had to go into the city to teach, but I make sure to light the candles in the windows so he knows we’re here, when he pulls up in the driveway across the road.
Tonight John is on his way back to London from Qatar, sleeping, one hopes, that seven-hour journey to bring him back to just a shower at home and another working day. Goodness, he will have stories to tell once he is at Red Gate Farm with us, having done nothing more interesting than rid the laundry room of spider webs on a given Wednesday! Tonight there was a bit of excitement, though, as I was cooking dinner: we heard the roar of a piece of machinery in the back meadow and there was the little family from up the road: Mark on his John Deere whatever machine, his wife Connie who studies bats and trains rescue dogs, and their little 3-year-old girl Taylor. “At last!” I thought. “Someone to take the rest of the experimental bean salad!” so I ran across the lawn and heard all about their trials and tribulations during the blackout (no, they did NOT have a generator, as I assumed they would). Nice neighbors, and looking forward to pasturing the horses out back there when the final fencing bits come through.
Well, you’re up to date. The humidity continues, so I have put on the AC cautiously, after turning EVERYTHING else off! Perhaps tomorrow will be a pool day… enjoy this July evening, everyone.
Goodness. I know our foremothers lived without electricity (and in turn without ice, or a fan to make white noise to put them to sleep, and without any means to move around hot air, these three being my major requirements for a happy physical existence in summer). But they didn’t live without it UNEXPECTEDLY. I am positive I would actually have been a quite happy person without electric lights or refrigerators, were I prepared ahead of time not to have them. To read by candlelight! To await the arrival of the ice man, bringing his great blocks to fill my quaint icebox, giving little slivers of ice to my docile children to suck through pieces of muslin cut from my castoff aprons! I could do it. But suddenly to try to brush one’s teeth and there’s no water… because there’s no electricity… because one’s water comes from a well?
It was all downhill from there. One evening had been enough, especially when I knew I caused it myself, running the AC and dryer at the same time, naughty me. But the next day started out horribly, and got worse. Let me explain.
I came downstairs after our lightless night, feeling a bit out of sorts, even cranky, and stepped down the two steps into the kitchen to squash… a mouse. A real MOUSE. Under my foot, shod thank goodness, but still. In disbelief I turned around and lifted up my foot and there it was… still in its death throes. Unfortunately I had screamed when the foot first encountered the thing underneath it, and so poor Avery had to be witness to the snuffing out of a mouse life. She insisted that I get a piece of cardboard and bring the poor thing outside, so I did, and we installed him underneath a little flowering bush. Then there was the mess to clean up, horrible. Where is my vacation? I kept wondering in a pathetically self-absorbed way. Why is every day spent fixing broken things, watching things get broken before my eyes, waaah. I hate being a grownup. The sort of problems one has, I remind myself, when one has no real problems. But still.
The day sort of descended from there into a reasonless gloom. We repaired to the library in a sort of cocoon of sweat, and to the post office and bank and grocery, and to the video store, each time being greeted as we emerged with the SLAP of heavy, humid air. A desultory lunch, and that empty mid-afternoon when you know you’re going out to dinner and so there is no food shopping, no food prep, and since it was Saturday, no lovely soaps to watch. We hung out on the terrace feeling at loose ends, and then suddenly the sky that had been blue was white, and the trees that had hung lifeless in the heat were blowing into a frenzy, and the air that had been close and silent was whipped into a sort of frightening gale. It reminded me of my childhood tornado scares, and as such was mildly nostalgic and exciting!
Rain fell in a torrent for perhaps 15 minutes, and I imagined with totally unjustified optimism that the air temperature dropped. It was in this misplaced spirit of hope that I took the photographs of Red Gate Farm in the rain: imagining that we would be in some different state when the storm was over… I ended up conked out for a half hour in a sweaty nap upstairs, to be awoken by Avery bounding up the steps saying, “Dave was here asking if we had lit a fire. He smells smoke…” No, no fire. But an hour later, we realized there was no power, and it was but the work of a moment to investigate up the road and find a fallen live wire, in the road. And no power for any of us. Drat.
We had made plans to meet Jill, Joel and Jane in their little town for dinner at what Jane called adorably, “a Japanese steakhouse.” To hear a three and a half year old utter these words, pronounced completely correctly, is really something: you want to make her say them over and over. So we abandoned Dave to his investigations and reportings (I was relieved it wasn’t me calling up the power company, after the night before. I could just hear the report: “It’s that crank up to Sanford Road again, sir..”) We had a completely delicious dinner at “Ichiro,” a hibachi and sushi bar,” for my first foray into that experience of a dinner cooked with great choreographed panache on a flaming stove, around which we all sat in varying degrees of fear. Joel kept making up newspaper headlines about Avery, “Promising Scholar Escapes Injury by Flames to Eyes by Prescription Lenses at Local Japanese Restaurant…” We had luscious filet mignon and chicken, mixed vegetables, fried rice and noodles, not to mention a thin mushroom broth, and the only bizarre thing: an iceberg lettuce salad to be eaten with… chopsticks! Such is the melting pot that is the United States of America.
Great fun to be together, eat great food all of whose ingredients were obvious, taste a new dipping sauce made with wasabi mustard and, I think, ginger. Next time I will try the sushi, because it looked fabulous: intricate and beautiful. And there was no sushi smell, always a good sign.
We wandered around their darling downtown area, feeling stuffed, and then realized we should let Jane go to bed and also find out if all was well in our neck of the woods. A lovely sunset drive back to the hilarious audiobook by Sharyn McCrumb, “Missing Susan,” and down our road, thinking as we approached, “All is well! There are lights across the road!” Only they were… candles. Quaint and lovely, but… not a good sign. We meandered over to find David, Anne and Baby Katie surrounded by candles, with Dave reading aloud from an anthology of ghost stories from the Midwest! And you know what? Why does it take a blackout, a true emergency, for good friends to take the time to sit for two hours and simply… chat? It was LOVELY. No schedule, nothing to anticipate needed to be done, because there was nothing TO be done. We caught up on Katie’s achievements (they change quickly between weeks four and six), Avery’s school expectations for next year, my writing class, their plans for various house projects, all the leisurely, neighborly, friendly topics that could easily have been pushed to one side all summer, but for an evening with no choice but to hang out. There is a clear lesson to be learned there! But what… Create your own emergency, perhaps, if none is presented to you by Mother Nature.
Finally I felt we were overstaying our welcome with the most relaxed new parents one can imagine, and made noises about leaving. Just then we heard the GLORIOUS sounds and saw the GLORIOUS sights of a lumbering truck with a searchlight, and knew help had come. Dave and I went out to greet the guy, as representatives of our respective needy families, and Dave walked us across the road with his handy-dandy windup flashlight. Avery is NOT keen on the dark, and so I lit candles as fast as I could, and got us upstairs to my bedroom to wait out the repairs. Avery was such a trooper, learning to light candles, finding a truly comforting and familiar book to read… but nothing could disguise the fact that we were SMOTHERING. All those candles, not a breath of air. The hours ticked by. Finally around 12, Avery crawled into her sweltering bed. Then by 1:30 or so, the workers departed and our lights came back on. Sigh. Just air movement with the fan was HEAVEN.
Woke up this morning to a totally different mood! Everything seemed possible and happy, although the day was even warmer, if anything. Did you know about ionisation and moodiness? Neither did I. But apparently some people can be affected by the state of the weather before and during a storm. Certainly I was in a funk all yesterday.
In my funk, and last night during the post-mouse-murder-blackout, I thought of ways to cheer myself up. And don’t lots of people say, “When you need to get out of a blue mood, think of someone else instead of yourself”? So I thought of my neighbors across the road, just as hot and sweaty and in the dark as we were, only going through it with a newborn baby. Wouldn’t it be nice to feed them? And the result, this evening, was SPECTACULAR! If I say so myself. One of those spontaneous, delicious meals that owes its success as much to the company and the mood of appreciativeness as it does to the food. What is it about friends whose conversation is always intelligent but never tortured, who require only about 5 minutes’ catchup after a 6-month separation to feel normal? They are irreplaceable, and magically, this summer there is one more of them. Long live Katie.
But the food was lovely. Very summery and light, and involving almost no last-minute hot stove or oven. You can boil the corn early in the day, and bake the finished corn dish just at the end.
I’m a huge fan of Penzeys spices, and with a shop in my sister and brother in law’s hometown, I’m happy to recommend it to you. All in all, a good summer menu for a hot day. And a lot of it you can buy at your local produce stand, which always feels good.
Herbed Grilled Pork Tenderloin
(serves 6 at least)
2 pork tenderloin, membranes and fat removed if you like
Penzeys “Fox Point Seasoning” (shallots, chives and scallions)
Penzeys “Old World Seasoning” (an amazing combination of paprika, salt, sugar, celery, garlic, onion, black pepper, parsley, dill, caraway, turmeric, dill, bay leaf, marjoram, thyme, savory, basil, rosemary!)
juice of 1 lime
splash olive oil
Place tenderloins in a Ziplock freezer bag with all the other ingredients and slosh them around. Let marinate in a cool environment until ready to cook. Prepare grill to 400 degrees and cook on each side for about 10 minutes for medium-ish (pinkish in the middle), or longer if you like. Let rest for a couple of minutes and then slice thick, on the bias.
Another Great Bean Salad
1 cup shelled cooked edamame (soy beans)
1 soup-size can pinto beans, WELL rinsed and drained
handful sugar snap peas sliced into small bites
1/2 red onion, diced
1 cup cooked drained lentils
2 tbsps wasabi horseradish mayonnaise
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt to taste
2 tbsps olive oil
Could it be any easier? Mix everything well, and enjoy. It’s got everything to recommend it, this salad: fiber, whatever wonderful things the superfood soy offers, lentils, the crunch of sugar snap peas, the snap of wasabi. Lovely.
6 ears corn, lightly boiled, kernels cut off
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup light cream
handful grated pecorino or parmesan
Spray a pie plate with nonstick spray. Scatter half the corn and then scatter the garlic, then scatter the rest of the corn. Pour cream over and sprinkle with cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Heavenly aroma!
Marinated Grilled Vegetables
1 red pepper, 1 orange pepper, 1 yellow pepper, quartered and de-seeded
1 bunch asparagus
2 large flat mushrooms, cut in thick slices
large bunch broccolini
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsps garlic salt
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tbsp sea salt
fresh ground pepper
Put vegetables into a Ziplock freezer bag with all other ingredients and slosh around, as you did the pork tenderloin, until nicely mixed. Leave in plain sight as you cook everything else and squish the ingredients whenever you pass the bag. Cook at the same temperature but in less time as the pork tenderloin: about 400 degrees for aout 15 minutes. Stir often as they cook.
Well, enjoy your Sunday evening. We are grateful for (in this order): family and friends (absent and present), good healthy food, library books, chipmunks and groundhogs, and… Thomas Edison. That’s the guy, isn’t it?
Several Notes to Self: first one up… remember last summer when the first really hot day, I mean REALLY hot day came and you decided to turn on the AC? Did you happen to be doing laundry at the same time? Well, don’t! I did the same thing tonight and then blasted into total recall as the electricity shut down and we were plunged into darkness at 9:30. Avery does not do tremendously well in total darkness, plus any unexpected set of circumstances convinces her completely that I’m a total nincompoop idiot and incapable of handling anything the least bit challenging. “I’ll follow you with a candle, Mommy, in case there’s anything I can do,” she said bravely, until she discovered that following me would involve… drum roll please… the BASEMENT. EEEKK!!!
Anyway, I flipped the dryer switch, the AC switch and the thing marked “MAIN” (feeling confident that, without an E on the end, I wouldn’t inadvertently cut off electrical supplies to an entire Down East state). Nothing happened. Waited five minutes or so (in the TOTAL basement darkness, surrounded, I knew, by mousetraps, spiderwebs and… well, that’s all, actually, besides a Christmas tree stand and several bottles of flat champagne). Tried the switches again, nothing. So I called the power company and reported it and lit ten thousand votive candles and fielded Avery’s panic.
Then, in sheer boredom, I went down there once more and randomly threw the switches again, and HALLELUJAH! Everything back on, although I immediately turned off the dryer. I can definitely go until tomorrow without my pool towels being cozy and tumble-dried. Then, however, I realized the power company was still sending someone out, and sure enough, up our dear, dark road came an enormous truck with a huge CRANE and a searchlight. He passed our house despite our semaphores of “stop, stop,” no doubt because the house was lit up like a Christmas tree so clearly we didn’t need him? But I said, “He’ll be back,” so we sat down among the mosquitoes and moths and ants on the front step, admired that portion of the picket fence we could see if we didn’t turn our heads toward the bit felled by the gravel guy… and back the electrical guy came. He trained his super-duper searchlights directly into the bedroom of the baby across the road, I have no doubt, as I waved wildly through his windscreen. Then we saw him don an orange plastic hard hat, and pick up a pair of GOGGLES (Always Be Prepared) and descend from the cab of the truck.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I called the power company back to say everything was OK, but I was on hold FOREVER.” “That’s all right, ma’am,” he said, doffing his hat and making me feel incredibly OLD, “we were in the neighborhood anyway.” “Well, it’s good to know you’re on the job,” I said, and shook his hand. He got back in his very impressive truck (still wearing the hard hat, although the goggles had not appeared), and drove off, honking lightly to indicate his solidarity as he passed.
Friends indeed. What would we do without them? They smooth our driveways. Rollie came first thing the morning after I threw myself on his mercy, and as you see, smoothed everything out. He accepted a blueberry and raspberry pancake afterward and hung out at the picnic table, discussing with me the options as regards our windowsills, sadly in need of paint. “Why don’t let’s wait until John is here, to decide? He has that lawyerly sort of voice, if you know what I mean, not that he’s ever been a lawyer, but you know. People’ll listen to him.” Shoot, but not to me? Definitely not. Fair enough. Thank you, Rollie, for making my driveway driveable. I spent the rest of the day alternately rejoicing over it and finding bits I needed to shovel and rake to make it all straight, and can I tell you? Gravel is HEAVY. It likes to stay where it is. I hurt in muscles I never knew I had.
Then it was onto more perfect friend encounters. We were dying to see Alyssa, however unencumbered, sadly, she is with children, with Elliot and Annabelle both committed to camps involving WAY too much of their summers, in my opinion! How I miss them both. But we agreed to meet Alyssa in Greenwich, as a sort of halfway point, and then it turned out Becky and her family would JUST have arrived, although with no furniture and so in a hotel. So the day turned into friend heaven. First lunch at “Aux Delices”, the catering outfit and darling cafe run by the lady who used to run “Montrachet” in our old Tribeca haunts… we each had a divine bean salad that I came home and completely successfully replicated, although it took me a day to find out what the “green” bean was…
1 can each “small white beans,” black beans, THOROUGHLY rinsed and drained
1 cup edamame (soy beans)
3 ears sweetcorn, lightly boiled and cut off the cob and separated
2 bunches scallions, cut on the bias right into the green part, in nice slivers
1 red pepper, julienned
1 clove garlic, smashed into tiny smithereens
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tbsp wasabi horseradish sauce (or blended with mustard)
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt to taste
Combine all the vegetables in a large bowl. Then shake together everything from the garlic onwards in a small jar and pour over salad, then toss thoroughly. Very nice!
I think if you wanted to add shredded roast chicken to this, or even seared tuna, you’d be in business for a fine entire lunch. As it was, it was lovely with the freshest tomato-mozzarella sandwich you ever tasted, on the side.
We shopped! Normally I hate to shop. Seeing more than about two dozen things in a shop makes me want to give everything I own to Oxfam or Goodwill, never mind buying anything NEW. But Anne Fontaine for a black t-shirt blouse, and JCrew for a ruffled v-neck button-up t-shirt? Done! Mostly it was beyond lovely just to follow Alyssa around, gossiping, sharing gossip on Tribeca news, John’s job news, Avery’s Prize Day and play news, Jill’s pregnancy news… total pleasure, total fun.
And then Becky was there! With Anna and Ellie, jumping out of the car to greet Avery. “I feel I already know you!” Alyssa said to Becky, jumping on Becky’s same words! To see my two best friends finally meeting each other almost made up for the realization that now I’ve said goodbye to BOTH of them. No fair! How have I been lucky enough to have either one of them, much less both. I will not whine.
Off to follow Becky to their new house (empty!) to tour the glorious place and the gorgeous grounds, complete with pond in which the girls felt it was necessary to throw many, many stones trying to rouse something under the surface… I can picture the whole family, fireplaces, gorgeous kitchen, high ceilings, rolling lawns… We sat and chatted and reminisced and silently wished we could turn back the clock and be back in London, ready for the whole adventure to start again.
But there will be new adventures. Among them was… getting back to Red Gate Farm! How hard it seems to be for me to go ANYWHERE without getting well and truly lost, no matter how well I write things down. I ended up throwing myself on the mercy of a whole VERY American picnic tableful of American guys outside some nice IT company, begging them to tell me how to get to I-95. There is something irresistibly American about guys in short-sleeve tennis-y sort of shirts, drinking Budweiser, looking crisp-cut and innocent and friendly. They fell all over themselves to help me find I-95, and it was such a going-home experience, that American-ness. I can’t define it, but there’s something boyish, kind-hearted, joyous and competent about that profile that both reminds me of John and also makes me realize how far his general profile has come from there, since we’ve been away. It’s still part of him, but only part.
I did get home!
Another note to self: if you know FULL WELL your washing machine has a diabolical spin cycle, and that you’ve put your nice bedspread into it… don’t leave the plastic container of laundry detergent on top of it to… fall off. And split open, onto the floor of the laundry room. EEWW! Not as nasty as something NASTY being spread all over my laundry room, but still, a big fat mess.
We’ve been enjoying the gorgeous sunny days… but we’re missing John and waiting for his arrival next month… can’t wait.
Well, from the sublime to the ridiculous, as they say. The sublime being the inaugural summer dinner with Jill, Joel and Jane (and ?), and Anne, David and little Katie. How perfect it was to have everyone here for barbecued ribs and chicken, bean salad, tomato, mozzarella and pesto (Jill took one look at the tomato platter and asked, “What is everyone else going to eat?”, so she helped herself to a knife and the rest of the tomatoes and fleshed out the salad). And my own invented potato salad, which was pretty successful, I think, considering the amount that disappeared from the bowl:
Everything But the Kitchen Sink Potato Salad
(serves 6 as a side dish)
2 pounds new potatoes, steamed and cut in half
1 large red onion, diced
2 bunches spring onions, sliced including the green bits
handful radishes, sliced
handful slivered almonds, lightly toasted in a skillet and cooled
4 sticks celery, diced
6 slices bacon, pan-fried and well-drained on paper towels
3 ears sweetcorn, boiled for 3 minutes and kernels cut off
1/2 cup mayonnaise
juice of 1 lemon
How easy is this: mix everything together (mix mayo and lemon juice in a little separate bowl, then add), and toss. Delicious!
My mother in law swears by hard-boiled eggs in her potato salad, and if I’d had enough, I’d have added those too. Delicious.
Jane and Avery trampolining, baby Katie mewling and waving her hands, Jill discussing pregnancy with Anne and David, Joel offering gentle tips on bringing small creatures home from the hospital and lasting several years with them at home… I felt it had been far longer than a mere almost-dozen years since I went through all this with my own child, who took very good care of her cousin. Well done, Avery, and Jane couldn’t be brighter (I say with total lack of bias). We found a huge stash of crayfish in an abandoned minnow trap in the pond, and Jane gestured wildly toward them, saying, “This pond is full of crustaceans!”
Well, would that life could have continued on that peaceful, celebratory, gentle and delicious path, but today brought… chaos. Let me explain.
On Friday I drove myself to the local quarry to order gravel for my pitiful driveway project. Rollie had said eight yards, and the quarry guy said, “That’ll run you about 10 tons,” and looked at me questioningly, as if I might have something to contribute to the conversation. “That sounds plausible,” I offered, and signed the credit card slip. Then as I turned to go, the guy asked, “Will you want that delivered?”
Avery said later, “I mean, nine tons maybe we could get home by ourselves, but ten tons? Forget it!”
So this morning, in advance of the optional delivery, I had my phone on my bedside table, and had seemingly just closed my eyes to sleep (I do tend to burn the midnight oil when John is not around) when the ringer buzzed insistently at 7 a.m. “Waah?” I answered brilliantly, and a chirpy girlish voice said, “I’m sorry, I see on our receipt here that we were supposed to call you BEFORE we came, and he’s in your DRIVEWAY right now!” Oh dear. I dragged on some sneakers and wished violently to brush my teeth, but my mind was filled too much with images of a truck filled with ten tons of gravel burying my car to give precedence to matters of personal hygiene. I rushed out and stuck my hand out to the driver of the ENORMOUS truck idling in the driveway. He stepped down from the cab and I swear: he was one of Santa’s elves on off-season employment. All of 5 feet high, hands smaller than Avery’s, and if he didn’t sport a long white beard, he gave every indication of doing so.
In the pouring rain, feeling fuzzy and silly, I pointed to the area euphemistically known as “the driveway” and said, “We’d like the gravel right THERE. So I’ll just move my car…” and when I got back, I saw the truck had got no closer to the destination for the gravel than when I’d left. “No, no, we want the gravel HERE,” I motioned. “No, lady, I’ll leave it right up here and let gravity do its work.” GRAVITY? It would take a severe readjustment of the movement of the earth to make any of that gravel move more than a hair’s breadth without heavy machinery. But it was raining, it was early and… I hadn’t brushed my teeth, so I gave in. The relationship between not brushing my teeth and letting ten tons of gravel go somewhere I didn’t want them? This is my personality.
So the gravel tumbled out where I didn’t want it. And then the truck advanced out of the driveway “area”, and I saw the bed of it closing up, and taking a big chunk of my tree branches with it. Oh dear. Unfortunately I watched this happening and held my breath while something much worse was happening: the truck neatly clipped the end post of my ancient and lovingly painted white picket fence, and simply… peeled the fence away. SERIOUSLY.
It all happened in slowmo. “Stop, stop,” I shouted in muted tones, not wanting to wake up the baby across the road. Finally he did, having dislodged a long bay of priceless cedar fencing… “Son of a…” said the Naughty Elf, jumping down from the cab. “Son of a something,” I silently concurred. For heaven’s sake.
After expressing his qualified and non-guilt-accepting “sorry,”, the elf drove away, saying, “Go back to sleep, now.” Oh sure, with ten tons of gravel in two breast-shaped pyramids the size of small mountains nowhere near their destination, and several hundred dollars’ worth of Connecticut Preservation Trust fencing on the ground in the pouring rain. Nighty-night!
Well, it was a long day of waiting for it to stop raining and then Avery and me stomping up and down on the breasts, feeling our hearts pound and calves ache, saying, “This is actually fun, and such good exercise!” only to realize after about an hour that we had made NO DENT in the pyramids. None. So no! I received a laconic and dripping wet “accident investigator” and watched her count pickets and measure inches and mutter unhelpfully. Sigh.
That was my morning. That and making a big vat of:
Garbage Soup, AKA Kristen’s Gazpacho
2 soup-can size whole plum tomatoes
3 small seedless, or 1 seeded hydroponic cucumber
1 red bell pepper
1 red onion, quartered
1 large handful nuts (any kind!)
1 large handful bread crumbs (any kind!)
3 cups homemade chicken stock
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tbsp each: ground cumin, ground cloves
2 tsps ground cloves
salt to taste
cream to taste
Seriously: so much of this soup is stuff you might have thrown away. For one thing, you can use tired cucumbers, tired peppers, tired onions you’ve used half of for tuna salad, or sandwiches. Never throw these things away! They can always be ground up for soup.
Then, say your adorable neighbors bring you a rotisserie chicken to welcome you home. You eat some for dinner, grind the rest of the breast up with some mayo and tarragon for chicken salad. Throw the carcass in a stockpot with some celery and onion and carrot and boil for an hour. Strain, and you’ve got… chicken stock for your soup.
Then you KNOW the airline will insist that your child wants those two packets of macadamia nuts from London to here, and YOU know she won’t want them. DON’T SAY SO. Take them, and throw them into your soup. And that heel of the loaf of bread your neighbors left along with the chicken? You ate all the rest for toast? Throw that in too.
So grind up in your Cuisinart as many of these ingredients as will fit, pouring them into a very large bowl as you go along. Then mix thoroughly, and VOILA. Chill thoroughly (if you have room in your freezer it won’t take long). Garbage soup. Everyone will thank you, and just think what you’ve used up that you almost threw away.
Well, we salvaged our afternoon by driving to Seymour to see “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.” I’d love to tell you it was awful, a waste of money, a meaningless foray into the relentless merchandising of American history. But… it was lovely. Beautifully cast (although Chris O’Donnell seemed a bit young to be the dad), gorgeously costumed, sweetly evocative Midwestern neighborhoods (although I think it was shot in Canada). A nice Depression storyline, nice moral lines, but humor too, and emotion. Take any little girl you know, or for that matter, any person who was a child during the Depression. You’ll be glad you did.
Cashew Beef with Red Peppers and Carrots, on Angel Hair Pasta
(serves two, with leftovers)
2 filet mignon steaks, sliced thin
3 tbsps soy sauce
2 tbsps sesame oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch knob ginger, peeled and minced
handful baby carrots, sliced thin
2 red bell peppers, sliced thin
1/2 package bean sprouts
2 handfuls angel-hair pasta, broken in half
Place the beef and soy sauce and oil in a shallow bowl and mix well. Leave to marinate while you prepare the garlic, ginger and vegetables.
Put water to boil for angel-hair pasta.
Heat a large skillet and throw in the beef. Toss well until cooked through, the remove with slotted spoon or tongs to a serving bowl, leaving as much cooking liquid behind as possible. Heat skillet again and throw in garlic, ginger, carrots and peppers. Toss over high heat until carrots are JUST cooked.
Put pasta on to boil. Then add beef and sprouts and cashews to the vegetables in the skillet and toss till heated through. Drain pasta and toss with everything in the skillet. DONE.
You can always add more soy sauce if you need more flavor. It’s a lovely colorful, low-calorie stir-fry with everything: vegetables, protein, a bit of pasta, just lovely. I was totally inspired by the gorgeous chicken dish my brother in law made for me this week: his was a rather more Italian-ish dish with Marsala and parmesan, but the carrots and peppers, and the noodles, were purely stolen from him. Thank you, Joel!
So tomorrow is another day. I fear it will bring the DMV to my life, as I attempt to become legally registered (my car, I mean, not me) in Connecticut. And a tennis lesson! Because playing on our own, just the two of us, guess what Avery and I discovered? In order to play tennis, ONE of you must know how… to play tennis. Because all we did was try to serve (not so good there), try to hit back (hmm, a little rusty) and chase balls around the courts (very accomplished!). So a lesson with Val, the swarthy professional, will be fun. And after a tearful visit to his dining room table tonight, I am fortunate enough to have Rollie’s promise to help flatten my driveway breasts tomorrow morning. Fingers crossed. Sometimes flat is GOOD, trust me.
Well, that’s the least of the transformations in our lives from 48 hours ago until now. Yes, when we left our lovely little Connecticut hideaway in December, the back meadow was… a meadow. In fact, it was a bitter winter wasteland representing what we knew from experience would morph into a spring phenomenon of tangled overwhelming green, and by the height of summer would be an overgrown jungle inhabited only by deer, coyotes and… ticks. I personally have never actually been very far into that particular bit of the acreage that comprises our homestead.
Since then, our lovely neighbors up the road, Mark who so kindly helped us paint our fence last summer and his sweet wife and little daughter, have transformed the whole lot into a pasture for their horses! It’s an unrecognizably civilized space back there, bounded by some sort of electrical fencing so that the eventual ponies will not be allowed to eat until they burst.
As I say, however, that’s the least of the ways in which we feel we’ve fallen down a rabbit hole from the urban sprawl, endless competition, crammed social calendar, long list of impenetrable responsibilities (and great grocery shopping), plus COLD RAIN that is our life in London, left behind just two days ago. Here, instead, we are living in a welter of green growing things, a house full of summer memories and spider webs, produce stands full of sweet corn and basil, overpowering heat and humidity, and the relentless cheeriness of American life! It’s just hard to believe that one can have both lives in one.
The weather greeted us as an open hand in our faces: my hair has exploded in a welter of embarrassing curls, all over my head. We take showers and then immediately start pulling up weeds, sticks from the lawn, yanking the trampoline out of the big barn (covered in bat poo, yuck), and are thus instantly covered in sweat again. Needless to say… we are in heaven.
A sort of truncated heaven, in which there are (for the first two days, anyway) no telephone, internet or car. We arrived from the airport late-ish on Monday to find the driveway (I use the term loosely, referring to the space covered by grass and weeds that SHOULD be the driveway) occupied by dear farmer Rollie’s pickup truck, his two helpers and some random university boy trying to conduct a survey into the educational system of Southbury. Why all these people? Dead battery in the station wagon, predictably, and it took all of two days to get it sorted, thank you Rollie. In the meantime, we went into the house to find a refrigerator full of food from our dear neighbors Anne and David (and their darling new baby Katie)… a roast chicken, ears of splendid sweetcorn, a loaf of bread, eggs, you name it. Could we have better neighbors? Rhetorical question.
So Avery and I doggedly stayed up until the wee hours to avoid jet lag, and were up with the chickens the next day to survey our domain. What accounts for the serenity here? Certainly there’s no shortage of work to be done: downspouts hideous, weeds everywhere, windowsills crumbling, driveway in desperate need of 7 yards (would you believe that’s how it’s measured? Rollie says, and Rollie knows) of gravel. But there is something of an eternal welcome in Rollie’s wife Judy’s visit, a quick, shy New England hug, her basket of red geraniums to greet us on our staggering steps encumbered by luggage, up to the house. And a look both ways to cross the road to Anne and David (Avery asking all morning yesterday “Is this too early to visit people with a new baby?”), rejoicing over the sleeping miraculous creature in her bassinet, presenting them with the “ceremonial first bowl of pesto of the year…”
And my brand of gardening, which I explained to my mother in law, is of the “reductive” rather than the “additive” school: picture Michelangelo versus Degas. I sculpt in REMOVING, rather than PLANTING. I can conjure up no interest in putting things into the ground, but I don’t mind a little time spent pulling up weeds and gathering up sticks from the lawn to throw over the ever-useful back fence to clear up the place. So Avery and slaved this afternoon to make the lawn presentable, and periodically hoped Rollie would come back to fix the dead car battery so we could go visit Jill, Joel and Jane tomorrow. And yes! As I spatchcocked and marinated my Cornish game hens, I found time to help Rollie remove the old battery and put in the new, totally flashing back to my childhood spent helping my dad do things to cars (how I have retained none of this knowledge, I cannot explain). To hear the starter turn over! Bliss. To drop one of the beautifully chargrilled game hens into the newly-raked and de-sticked lawn? Priceless. Avery and I persevered in eating dinner, but I wouldn’t recommend even the cleanest Connecticut crunchy dirt as a condiment for your next barbecue.
Sigh. We miss John. We miss the cats. But something came and took away the half apple Avery left under the bird feeder, so our hopes are high that our usual groundhog Gary will reappear once he knows there is food to be had. We’ve had a clue that we’re not alone: after my first load of lawn sticks went over the back fence, there was the unmistakable aroma of… skunk. As long as it’s not ON ME, I don’t object at all to skunk. I hope he didn’t feel we were rejecting him. A little half canteloupe set temptingly in the usual backyard snack area should do the trick.
So the long and short of it is: we’re back in the summertime mode. No schedule, no expectations, no makeup, no ironing. On the plus side: endless corn on the cob, fresh crabmeat, live lobsters on Thursdays, tennis lessons to begin on Friday, family to appreciate, blue blue skies the order of the day. Wish you were here.
I know I always say this, and I must sound like the most dreary layabout, but I can hardly get my mind around the indisputable fact that by this time tomorrow, I will be in my house in Connecticut (or at least in a smelly hot car service from the airport on the WAY there), and not in my house in London.
I must not get around enough! It always strikes me with a horrible lurch, and then a day or so of nervous stomach, and not sleeping, to picture not being here, and being there. And then of course I’ll repeat it all in September with the thought of not being there, but being HERE. It’s partly to do with leaving the cats, which I hate, and leaving my new house, which seems hard, and now leaving my perfectly good husband. Would you believe that after a year and a half of being happily unemployed, the perfect job began… last week? So he may join us in August. Five or more weeks apart? I don’t groove to that. But it is not in my hands to control. I also worry about his not being here when I’m not here: if he’s gallivanting off in India this coming week and Qatar the next…
Yes, he’s been made General Partner in a private equity firm. In theory I know what this means, or at least I’ve explained it in a minimal way: “he’ll find people to invest their money, and then find projects to invest it in.” John rolls his eyes over the intensely elliptical nature of this explanation, but allows as how it’s “sort of OK.” Avery worries, “That sounds risky.” I say, “Yes, but only with other people’s money, so that’s all right.” In truth, no one could be more risk-averse than my husband, and yet adventuresome. Don’t get me started on all his good qualities, when I won’t be with any of them for the foreseeable future. Today we were invited to lunch by the single mother of one of Avery’s upcoming schoolmates, and as we parted at the door she said to John, “If you feel lonely, give me a call and we’ll get together.” Then suddenly she turned to me. “Not like that sounded!” Oh dear.
Sigh. It is very odd to contemplate all the changes in our lives: a new home, a new school, a new job. Only I remain, as usual, JUST THE SAME. I suppose that’s my role: remain the same so that all the planets that orbit around can orbit to their hearts’ content and there will be still, clean laundry and something to eat when they come back.
I do think we could all use a vacation from the last week of mayhem. It’s so funny: I started out with a very general list of “Monday: do such and such. Tuesday: do such and such.” I even typed it out. Then as the hours went by the lists got more and more complicated, involving actual timed moments to find a cab, grocery lists, squeezing in a trip to the stationers’ for wrapping paper for a last-minute gift. At any rate, Monday last found me roasting a chicken at 10 am., not a normal thing for me to do. This was in preparation for my luncheon guests while John and his mother were at Wimbledon (Roger Federer, Centre Court, thanks to my brilliant and generous sister Jill). My lunch was such a treat: my friend Sue, who is film and stage addicted, and our mutual friend Caroline who is similarly obsessed. No other friends in my life would agree to come to my house and natter on about Richard Armitage and Matthew Macfadyen all afternoon. I raced around during the morning Avery was at school, concocting my chicken salad, which relies on a chicken roasted JUST for the purpose: plus green onions sliced, pine nuts toasted, plenty of celery, lemon zest and red onion diced, and JUST enough lemon-juiced mayonnaise to hold it together. That with a nice cheese board and a bit of baguette… then I raced off to get Avery and her beloved Anna at school, and brought them home to throw some lunch to them and leave me with my friends! Callous, but true. In the patchy sunlight of the garden, after lunch we had tea and gossip and the fun of girlfriends. Irreplaceable, really.
From there it was a race to get the girls to the pre-play costume checks on time. And the play was LOVELY. To hear the songs from “Alice in Wonderland” not just in a single voice in the bath, but from the throats of many on stage, was a revelation. How hard they had all worked! The surly caterpillar played by Ami, the aggressive “Mock Turtle” played by Sophia, the wonderful music… and Avery had nothing much do to but wait until the next night when she would take over the narrator from her friend Julia. The memorization of the lines was deemed too much for a girl to do two nights in a row, so they split it up. She was fairly champing at the bit!
Tuesday was more of the same: a nice carpooling mother brought Avery and Anna home and we whisked them off for a celebratory lunch at Cafe Rouge, where we all told horrendous jokes and shared all each other’s food, and generally wished that times like that could go on forever: when Avery and her beloved Anna could be together, laughing at each other’s awful punch lines, walking along with arms around each other’s necks, uniform dresses pulling all over the place, young and innocent in the sunshine. A beautiful afternoon.
Then it was onto gathering them up with all their belongings and getting them to the school early enough for makeup, and John’s mom, John and I to Liberty to try to order the fabric FINALLY for our upholstery over the summer. I know it sounds callous, but the only thing more inconvenient than discontinued fabric samples is… a discontinued upholsterer. Mr Frost is much mourned, and his lovely apprentice says sadly, “This is what we always planned, my taking over, but not this suddenly. No one was ready.” And so in the middle stand our sofa and bench, waiting sadly in un-upholstered un-glory. But John chose just what he wanted, and ordered it happily as I spent some unexpected shopping time with his mother. She is the ONLY person who makes shopping for clothes any fun, and I should always remember this and squeeze in some time with her to do so, since normally I’d rather have hot needles stuck in my eyes than try on clothes. But her “I can totally see this on you,” always manages to get me out of my negative funk in which I am all huge shoulders in the mirror and messy hair and no makeup.
And Avery in the play… can I kvell? Simply superb. She stood perfectly still, no unnecessary gestures, no fiddling about. Her eyes sparkled like stars and her voice hit all the right notes, and she ACTED. She commanded the stage when she was in the right, and when she needed to fade she did so, but she was always in character, watching the action and jumping in when it was her time. We were so PROUD of her! Just glorious. Later one of her fellow little actresses said to me, “When Avery played the part, I could understand why I was meant to say what I said. It made sense.” Somehow she invested in the part a total understanding of who she was meant to be. Good girl.
At dinner in the high street after, while John struggled with his new job via iPhone and Avery opened the gorgeous little paperweight that was her present from her Nonna, Anna’s family came ambling by and invited Avery to spend the following night at their house for a farewell sleepover. Oh dear, I felt myself approaching the awful realization that as Anna’s friendship with Avery came to a close (at least on that dear, daily sort of basis that is so forgettably precious), so was my friendship with her mommy Becky. No more collapsing at Becky’s kitchen table with some tale or other of woe and need of support. No more meeting up after read-aloud mornings for luxurious coffees together, full of uncharitable gossip from me and helpful murmurings from Becky. No more hearing the doorbell ring and it was Becky either dropping off her own child, or children, or mine, or picking hers up, or mine. No more perfect listening ear to the inevitable crises that come with marriage and schoolchildren, moving, settling in, friendship quarrels, grocery lists, advice, LISTENING.
As if we needed any more emotion, the next day was Speech Day, otherwise known as Prize Day to the girls. I took Avery in the dreaded tube, so her newly-employed father could survive some crisis phone calls in the morning, and ended up killing time in Starbucks with several mother friends, and a drop-in from our beloved Miss Leslie, the form teacher. Again, I found myself thinking, “How can I leave these people? Our shared jokes, our gossipy quips about someone’s highlight job or badly-behaved child or runaway nanny or shopping spree…” And Miss Leslie’s dark sparkling naughty laughter, shying away from how she knows she will miss our little darlings… And then I remembered: it was not so long ago that I just arrived at the school and spent a lot of whingey time feeling sorry for what I had left behind THAT TIME. So surely all will be well. One can never replace the dear friends, the dear memories and times, but more good ones will come. I HOPE.
Still, it was on to Prize Day and what a glory it was! The speeches honoring the departing lovely, lovely headmistress. The chronicles from a tearful Chairman of the Board, telling of her inventing the school from whole cloth five years ago, his worrying that the school would never come off. “But I did not reckon on the Pied Piper that is our headmistress…” At the end of his speech the parents simply BURST onto their feet for the longest standing ovation, and the most tears, you can imagine. I thought to myself how the school, and the head, and the teachers, and the gulls, had changed Avery’s life forever. They had turned her from a girl who tended to hide in the classroom and avoid anyone’s attention, into a girl who was happy to push herself to do her best, to take one of the leads on the school play! To feel confident and win prizes and be happy. We were all in floods of emotion. To have John’s mom next to me was an unbelievable treat, witnessing such a cultural divide, such a foreign and wonderful ceremony: “My Lords and Ladies, and Gentlemen, may I offer my Report of the School on its Fifth Anniversary…”
Avery won her prizes and was happy. And I took her to Anna’s birthday party, while John’s mom bravely took herself off in the spitty rain to shop all on her own. And well she did, because the din at Anna’s party was unbelievable! Think what effect CAFFEINE will have on these children, eventually! I can’t. I helped Becky arrange the pillowcases on which they were all writing messages to each other, and then pass out pieces of pizza, and then mayhem as they decided to dance to super-loud “Wicked” soundtrack. Again, though, as crazy as it all was, I saw it pass through our lives as the “last” again, of a beloved ritual. The girls, so young in their uniforms, dancing and singing, eating cupcakes and signing goodbye cards for each other, falling down hugging each other: the last of an endless round of pre-grownup up parties. Sweet young things.
I basely abandoned Becky to race home and pick up my ordered scallops at Shepherd’s Bush Market and take them home to clean them. Never let it be said that I fall down on picking up a scallop order even though the job of preparing them between Prize Day and the head’s goodbye party put the chore somewhere behind a Botox session in terms of priorities. No, off I went. And brought them home. And dumped them in the sink and began to open them… EEEWWW!! Simply the most disgusting, revolting, appetite-suppressing job I have ever performed. What deluded person first looked at these things and thought, “With a little parsley, garlic and spaghetti, these would be divine”? Horrible! Yet I persevered, and left the bowl of pristine little hockey pucks in the fridge, with my minced garlic and parsley in little bowls on the counter, to go meet John’s mom to buy Avery a bathing suit.
And buy it we did. With exhausted feet and credit cards with numbers worn off from all the spending I had been doing lately, we got that *&^^ bathing suit, at Debenham’s. Then we repaired to Anna’s house to retrieve Avery and take her to school for the Senior Choir’s serenade of the retiring headmistress. Can I just say: it doesn’t get any more sentimental than the gulls singing, “Flying Free” all about spreading their wings and reaching for the skies… except… the head was wearing a strapless, electric blue silk gown embroidered with butterflies in sequin form, stiletto heels and… a tiara? Or did I imagine the tiara? Never mind, it felt like she was wearing a tiara. And the girls sang like little angels. I was so busy biting onto my tongue to keep from crying that I didn’t even get to listen properly. And then we came home to our scallops. And I’m sorry to say: they were so BEYOND fresh and delicious that I may find myself cleaning them AGAIN someday. I don’t look forward to it, but they were SUBLIME. John and his mom and I sat back in the twilight gathering over the garden and looked at the light reflected off Avery’s silver cups and felt… John’s dad smiling over it all.
Thursday was the crowning sobbing event of it all. I had thought I would be fine, with all the run-up of emotion to the end of everything. But saying goodbye to Becky, and watching Avery, Anna and Ellie cling to each other, mute but tearful in their distress, was simply heart-wrenching. The end of a glorious two-and-a-half year odyssey of discovery, friendship, trust, love and fun. Goodbye to that lovely bit of our lives.
But from pathos to bathos: Friday we took Avery to her little classmate’s house for a Fourth of July birthday party complete with a garden full of water slides and trampolines, while I scoured Kensington for a food my neurotic cat can eat while I’m away. Yes, it turns out Wimsey is allergic to wheat, rice, soy and… wait for it… peanuts. “I’m afraid it’s lights out for all those Japanese crackers he’s been enjoying with his cocktails,” the vet said, and well he can laugh because it’s not his little darling who’s suffering. But no, the food must be bought by prescription at the VET. Of course it must. Sigh. Home to prep our OWN Fourth of July party: dozens of steamed Dublin Bay Prawns with garlic mayonnaise, the borlotti bean salad, potato salad, and an ultimately rather unnecessary grilled rump steak, but a lovely salsa verde alongside. And John’s mom concocted an Eton Mess for Avery. And our lovely friends Vincent and Peter arrived and we all repaired to the garden for a candlelit party… glorious.
Now… John’s mom has callously abandoned us for her own life in America. We miss her desperately, and the celebratory glimmer she casts over our insane lives. And we are about to go off too. The next you hear from me… Connecticut! A whole ‘nother cast of characters and events and parties and dishes and… well, you know. My life. See you there.